Editor’s Note: Michael Steel is managing director at Hamilton Place Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm. He was previously press secretary to John Boehner and Paul Ryan. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
The late Anthony Bourdain’s television show on CNN wasn’t really about food. It was about travel, exploration and a sort of restless, joyful hedonism in culinary conquest and conversation.
In his work, like in Hunter S. Thompson’s journalism, he created a genre or art form that blended accepted concepts – the travel show, the cooking show, the documentary – into something wholly new, unnamed and unique to Bourdain.
I had no personal connection to Anthony Bourdain. He never bummed a smoke from me in a dark alley behind a restaurant or bought me a shot of local liquor in an exotic city. Yet, I feel his death keenly, for the loss of talent and what he represented at his best.
I read his book “Kitchen Confidential” shortly after college, after working as a grill man in a Mississippi kitchen with enough drama and substance abuse to feel like a pre-K version of a Bourdainian milieu. Because of that, I felt a special kinship with the author. But it was in his second career, on television, that Bourdain came to be more than a foul-mouthed raconteur with a string of unhygienic anecdotes about the food service industry.
He became a guide and champion of travel and experiencing the wider world, with shows that combined cuisine, history, culture, politics and everyday life around the world.
A Northeast native, he often visited places in America like a tourist, particularly when he ventured south to Houston, Charleston or Nashville, but he was truly in his element when he was abroad, and in areas that were obscure even to seasoned travelers.
Bourdain often injected his own opinions. His piece about London was really about his view of Brexit’s utter folly, explored amid his consumption of fish ‘n’ chips. His more recent show in Istanbul was about the rise of repression and intolerance, discussed over a pide, or Turkish flatbread. In the pastas of a modern working-class Italian suburb, there was talk of the lingering echoes of the fascist past.
Bourdain seemed at his best when served a production curve ball. Take when monsoons trapped his crew in Manila during a visit to the Philippines. Instead of lamenting his inability to travel to nearby islands, he crashed the most bourgeois function imaginable – a boozy office Christmas party – and made it an entertaining window into Filipino culture.
He enjoyed playfully tormenting his longtime friend Eric Ripert (who, sadly, was the first to discover his death) with fiery-hot peppercorns in Sichuan and excessive liquor elsewhere.
My favorite episode is probably his visit to an estate built in the 19th century in the hill station of Shimla, in northern India, by a doctor who worked for the British East India Company. Over rich curries and in tattered elegance, they explored the legacy of colonialism and the current divide between India and Pakistan.
I view Bourdain, in some ways, as a throwback to that era – a swashbuckling Victorian adventurer, like Sir Richard Burton or ‘Chinese’ Gordon, armed with a fork or chopsticks rather than a pistol or cutlass (and without the racism that those explorers fell prey to). I always pictured him steaming in a rickety boat up a river that no white man had ever seen.
It was a 2016 episode about a river that, since his death, I keep thinking about.
His narration began: “I was brokenhearted and at a crossroads in my life when I first went up the Skrang River in Sarawak, Borneo. The people who I met there, 10 years ago, hosted me and my crew in their longhouse, fed us, looked after us and treated me with great kindness. When the chiefs invited me back for their yearly harvest festival, Gawai Dayak, I said I would come. It took me a while, but in the end I did return. I have to admit, I was wondering if all the bad s—t running through my head the first time I went up that river was still lurking there – if I’d managed to entirely put it away.”
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At the time, I assumed the, “bad s—t running through” Bourdain’s head related to his well-documented struggles with substance abuse and addiction. Sadly, it seems he may have been talking about the silent, awful epidemic of mental illness, which it turns out he had not, and perhaps could not simply, “put away.”
Up the Skrang River, Bourdain saluted a departed friend with a cigarette and liquor at his grave. We, instead, should honor his life and legacy in three ways: go somewhere you’ve never been, eat something you’ve never eaten and tell everyone you love that you love them, even if they don’t seem to need it.